The Supremes, a King, and Burwell

I meant to post this one a couple of days ago, but no time!  I had to turn in early to catch a ride with friends for my next adventure – cross-country skiing.  I’m going to post about that one later tonight or tomorrow, and will link it here.

But I really wanted this post to stand on its own, as it was a very momentous occasion – I was able to go watch (for 5 minutes only) the Supreme Court session that will make or break the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) as it currently stands.  It was a fascinating and moving experience.  Partly due to the comradery people felt while waiting in line to get in, and then once inside, the personal experience of being in the same courtroom as the people making decisions that will affect millions for years to come.  They have a heck of a lot of power.  Luckily, there are many laws that steer what they can do, but their decision can still come down to interpretation.

The case is King v. Burwell, which basically questioned the actions of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the IRS in their extending federal credits to patients in states that hadn’t set up their own insurance markets/exchanges, but where instead patients joined the federal market.  The plaintiffs case hinged on wording in the Affordable Care that stated tax credits would be provided to patients  “enrolled in through an Exchange established by the State,” and that by giving tax credits to people in states with federal (but state-specific) exchanges, the IRS is setting tax law.  However, elsewhere in the Affordable Care Act, including in the title “Quality, Affordable Health Care for All Americans,” Tit. I, 124 Stat. 130 (emphasis added in the DHHS response and here), the intent of the law is broad – it is meant to apply across the U.S..  Of course, when the law was passed, it was expected that most states would create their own exchanges, but only 1/3 did, while the remaining 2/3 found it easier to either use federal exchanges or were philosophically against it (or their leaders were anyway.)

It is an interesting question, and the Supreme Court is thought to be split down the middle on it, with one swing vote anticipated to make the call.  If it rules against Obamacare, the whole system could unravel, as I’m sure you have heard, as many cannot afford the insurance without subsidies, and insurance rates will go up, to the point where too many folks will drop out.  There may be ways to save it, but that would require coordinated action, which is not Congress’ strong suit.

So what was my role on this momentous day?  I was there because I had long been wanting to go see a Supreme Court argument, and I realized I could swing a day off for this particular one, one which I have a personal stake in (I would like to be self-employed some day to write and perhaps farm; I have a pre-existing medical condition which prevented me in the past from getting insurance, which Obamacare helped fix; I like the fact the government is saving money through Obamacare; and I believe we should help support other Americans in need.)

So, without my knowledge of how long the line would be (other than the fact a friend said he didn’t have to wait too long in line to go see a different, albeit less popular argument), I took the morning off to attempt the wait to get in.   The early birds can get in to see the whole, two-hour argument (from 10:00 am -12:00 pm), those who don’t make that line or who want to stay for a shorter period, can wait in line to see the argument for just 3-5 minutes.  More details can be found here.

My plan:  friends and I arrive at 6:30 am.  My actual delivery:  7:30 am.   The wait in line: 2 1/2 hours.

Two 1/2 hours later, we found out we were about 55 people shy of getting in to see the whole argument.  But I did get in, for  5 minutes.  And it was sooo cool!!!!  Interesting.  Impressive.  Nerve-wracking.

No pictures were allowed, of course, once inside.  But the five minutes I was there was action-packed.  The courtroom was not that large, so although we were in the very back row, I could see the expressions on the justices’ faces.  The plaintiff’s lawyer was fiery, but long-winded and repetitive, and Justice Elena Kagan asked sharp questions, but there was humor by herself and others as well.  Clarence Thomas leaned back in his chair so far that you couldn’t see his face.  Ginsburg was quiet.  Others were more involved. They debated many points about patient qualifications. In that five minutes.

The whole room spoke of power, elegance, and the culture of law, with which I am totally unfamiliar.  Fascinating. I hated to leave the argument, but I do hope to see a full session of the court sometime.

And now we’ll find out in June.


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